Relyn Vash dismounted the dragon and shuffled along with her captors. A hood covered her face, and they’d bound her hands and feet with steel manacles.
She could escape these restraints with enough time, even if it meant breaking her own fingers. Unfortunately, her sister had also trained with the Sile’zhar, learning all the same tricks and more. No doubt Rhia was watching her closely for any such attempts.
In a way, Relyn was glad for the restraints. If it came down to it, could she really kill her own sister just to save thousands of strangers? At least now she wouldn’t have to find out.
Not yet, anyway.
The ground beneath her boots was smooth stone, but the wind blew wild and free, finding every gap in her leather armor. It felt like an open space at a high altitude. Mountains, maybe?
The closest mountain range was between the Black Steppes and the Searingthorn Jungle. They couldn’t have flown that far in the time that passed. Besides, Thane had claimed those peaks were uninhabited, and this platform was obviously man-made.
Several voices spoke from nearby, but the wind muffled their words. They walked about fifty more paces before someone yanked off her hood.
Relyn blinked, taking in the comet’s light. A few hours before, it was only a flash of white on the southern horizon. Now it soared directly above them. She’d never seen anything so large in the night sky before. Its tail made it look several scores longer than one of the moons.
She glanced left and right. The stone platform looked to be a few hundred paces wide in every direction. The ocean was visible off one side, its waves reflecting the pale light from above.
We’re on top of Dragonshard.
Relyn’s chest tightened as her sister led her forward. If Palatine had taken control of the palace, what did that mean for Thane and Nahlia?
She forced away the worry—those were only distractions now. Her battlefield was here.
Aside from Rhia and Dazen, she spotted a few more people on the roof. Two of them were her parents, Rakoja and Zirrack.
“Shiban,” Relyn cursed under her breath. Then she mouthed a silent prayer to Aegon, hoping against hope they would ignore her. The last time she’d seen her parents was the night they gave her the mission to infiltrate Whitecliff.
She’d feigned loyalty to Palatine that day. It was the only way for her and her uncle to leave peacefully. Once they’d reached the safety of Reverian shores, Relyn severed the Soulbonds with her parents and never looked back.
She wanted to become invisible now. She wanted to close her eyes or look away. Unfortunately, Rhia and Dazen were leading her straight toward them.
At least she could count on her father to ignore her. Vassaj Zirrack hadn’t even said goodbye to her when she left for the Sile’zhar monastery. Or Whitecliff, for that matter.
Her mother on the other hand...
Vassaj Rakoja turned her pale green eyes on her. She only said two words, but those words cut like glass. “Vassaj Relyn-gan”
Gan was a formal suffix in Western Valaysian, used by a superior to address someone far beneath her. People rarely used this suffix in modern dialects. It wasn’t something you would say to a slave or prisoner, much less a daughter.
There was no way to express the exact sentiment in Reverian. You could ignore someone, but even that implied anger. Instead, gan implied utter indifference. As if the wind could carry Relyn off this tower, and her mother wouldn’t even notice.
Relyn didn’t respond. She had meant to hold her mother’s gaze, but a tear formed in her eye and she looked away.
Shiban. She hardened her face, more annoyed at herself than anything. Three years on her own, and all it took was one word—one look from her mother—to make her a little girl again.
Not that it mattered. Her mother had already turned to look elsewhere. So did the others. Relyn followed their gazes to the center of the platform where a man emerged from a short tower. No doubt that was the staircase that led inside palace.
The man was tall, silver-haired, and wore a formal dark tunic.
Dazen and Rhia pressed their fists together and bowed as he approached. They called him “Grandmaster Trelidor.”
He acknowledged them each with a nod. “I trust you were successful?”
Rhia opened her leather satchel and pulled out the Codex.
Trelidor reached out his hand and accepted the smooth artifact, eyes wide with awe.
“You’ve done well,” he said. “Both of you.”
Then he turned to Relyn, seeming to notice her there for the first time. She was only sixteen when she last saw him, and they hadn’t even spoken that day. Surely, he wouldn’t remember her.
“Relyn Vassaj,” he said. “The one who betrayed her own clan to Whitecliff.”
Relyn swallowed, but said nothing. Excuses were for the desperate and the guilty. Besides, she’d heard stories about Palatine—how he detected liars and traitors with nothing more than a look. Relyn hadn’t believed those rumors until she met Ilsa in the Onyx Company. If a mercenary empath was that good, what could a foreign ruler do?
She forced herself to relax as he appraised her. If her body showed fear or doubt, her thoughts would follow. She also kept her mind blank, focusing on her breath.
Rhia cleared her throat from nearby. “My sister gave me the Codex willingly. She also chose to come back with us. The restraints were only a precaution.”
“A wise precaution,” Trelidor said, never taking his eyes off Relyn. “This one is clever, choosing her battlegrounds with care. Second stanza of the Sile’zhar Creed, am I correct?”
Relyn remained still and silent.
Trelidor glanced down to her bonds, then at her parents. “Is she worth the effort?”
Her mother turned that cold gaze on her again, and spoke in heavily-accented Reverian, “What are the words of your clan, Relyn-gan?”
Forever loyal. That was the answer her mother expected. Those were the words of Clan Vassaj. No doubt her mother had planned some clever retort regarding Relyn’s betrayal.
But Relyn had taken her uncle’s name when she left, and so she spoke the words of Clan Vash: “Forever honorable.”
After all, what good was loyalty without honor? She’d switched her allegiance several times now. First to Whitecliff, and then to Nahlia and Thane when they took the Codex. They could call her a turncloak all they wanted. At least she had principles.
Her mother kept her expression blank, but she looked away just a little too quickly.
Oh, so you do care.
“Do with her as you will,” Trelidor said to her parents. He glanced up at the sky, then looked at Rhia. “There’s work to do inside the Codex. You and the others will guard the entrance while I meditate inside.”
Rhia nodded. “What about Ciena? Where is she?”
“Ciena fought well tonight,” he said, “but the effort might have broken her.” He handed Rhia what looked like an ordinary sheathed katana, and she took the blade with visible reverence. “She’s resting now. If she doesn’t recover, I may call on you to take her place.”
And with that, Trelidor turned and began walking toward a different section of the platform. Someone threw the hood back over Relyn’s eyes.
She couldn’t stop Trelidor here, not bound and blinded like this. But then, the physical world wasn’t the only battlefield, was it?
Relyn reached out and felt the Codex with her mental senses—like approaching the edge of a chasm in her mind. After months of practice, the act had become as easy as reaching into her quiver.
Even as Rhia led her away, she began to meditate. Her physical body would collapse as soon as she entered the Codex, but Rhia was close enough to catch her.
As for the other consequences, she’d deal with those when she woke.
First she concentrated on her breathing to center herself. Then she focused on the entrance to the Codex, mentally approaching the precipice.
Finally, she took the plunge and followed her enemy inside.
Relyn received the usual greeting when she arrived—a dragon swooped down from the sky and tried to devour her.
Fortunately, she’d done this several times now, and they weren’t so original with their approaches. Relyn nocked an arrow and loosed it at her attacker. The missile struck the dragon in its right eye.
It let out a roar of pain and blew fire on the plateau.
Relyn ran for the trees. Dragons, she could handle. But she didn’t fancy being here when Trelidor arrived. She was almost surprised that she’d gotten here first. But then, how long had it taken her and Thane to enter the Codex their first time? At least half an hour if you counted all the bickering.
If Thane was right, then this Codex had been locked away for centuries. Keeping it safe from Palatine may even have been Whitecliff’s original purpose. That meant he wouldn’t have many chances to practice.
The clay ground cracked beneath Relyn’s boots as she moved. The rest of the landscape was the same as always—prehistoric trees, sputtering volcanos, and smoke-darkened skies. She took cover in the undergrowth where the forest began. Still close to the clearing, but out of sight.
She pulled an arrow from her quiver and nocked it in her shortbow. Attacking Trelidor was a huge gamble. Allegedly, he wielded all the same powers as Nahlia but with decades more experience. Still, the Codex had worked harder to kill Relyn and Thane their first time here, sending three dragons instead of one. Maybe it would be the same for Trelidor? Once the dragons engaged him, she would make her move.
Trelidor materialized in the clearing a few seconds later. A familiar sensation squeezed Relyn’s mind, preventing her from waking.
The dragons closed in around the silver-haired Aeon, at least four or five black-feathered wyverns tearing through the smoke-filled sky. A pack of two-legged raptors charged up the hill, followed by a pair of four-legged drakes.
Trelidor made no move to defend himself. The dragons moved closer. Closer.
Relyn pulled back the arrow, waiting for the moment he was most vulnerable.
Trelidor spread out his hands, and the dragons let out shrieks of pain. The wyverns dropped from the sky like dead flies. The raptors thrashed madly on the ground like spiders trapped in water. Their screams faded as their bodies turned to shriveled husks.
Relyn felt her own chest tighten, and her hands began to shake. She’d come here as a non-Ethermancer, armed with only a bow. If Trelidor knew she was here, he could take her life in seconds.
Once the dragons were all dead, the Codex released its hold.
I should just wake up. Besides, what could her enemy hope to accomplish here? The Archaeon’s ritual took months to learn, and the comet was close to perigee. He only had a few hours at the most.
Trelidor looked around and shouted, “Show yourself, ancestor!”
As if it’s that simple. When Relyn first came here with Thane, they’d spent the better part of an hour finding his throne room.
The Archaeon materialized on the plateau in front of Trelidor.
He’s been inside a Codex before, she realized. Even if he hadn’t been here specifically, Trelidor knew what to expect. He knew rules that she and Thane hadn’t.
The Archaeon looked nothing like Trelidor. His skin was darker, and he had a series of white Etherite tattoos on his bare chest. The only similarity between them was their long white hair.
“Yes.” The Archaeon nodded, sounding pleased. “You are far stronger than the ones who came before.”
Trelidor squared his shoulders. “Inferiors have taken this realm with their numbers and their black powder. I’ve come for the knowledge to cleanse it.”
Another nod. “I can give you what you seek, but first you must—”
“There will be no tests,” Trelidor interrupted. “Any other day, I might have spared the time for your trials and games, but my enemies are closing in as we speak. The Etherfall is upon us, and time is short.”
“This can not be rushed,” the Archaeon said.
“It can.” He choked the world as he spoke. The forest shriveled around where Relyn had hidden. Leaves cracked and broke. Wood rotted and turned to dust. The corpses of the dragons dried out further, looking like grapes left in the sun. The sky darkened, and the smoke swirled around them. Relyn’s breath caught in her throat, and her limbs turned to lead.
Finally, even the Archaeon sank to his knees.
Trelidor clenched his fist. “I am Alexel of Clan Palatine, heir to the greatest Aeon who ever lived. You are not him. You are a shadow of his thoughts. A mere echo of one who was infinitely greater. I am Palatine now, and this world is mine to rule.”
The Archaeon looked up at him. “Arrogant fool. You think you can threaten me in my domain?”
“Your domain rests in the palm of my hand. If you defy me, I will rip apart this place you call home. I will break you and take what I need.”
“You will not succeed.”
“I will,” Trelidor said. “In this, and in everything.”
As he spoke those words, Relyn believed them. Trelidor was going to accomplish more in minutes than she had in months. He’d already taken Dragonshard. Once he seized control of that comet, he would destroy anyone who opposed him.
She reached for her bow again, but the life left her body as Trelidor continued choking the forest. Her vision went dark as she fell forward into the dirt.